< On Better Terms


Friday, March 26, 2010

Way back in 1990, I was the editor of All Things Considered, and when I wrote news copy depicting legislators and their views on abortion, I would classify them as either “anti-abortion” or “supporters of abortion rights.” But about five years ago, that language changed, and up until this week you could hear hosts and reporters using terms like “pro-choice” or “pro-life” to describe those divided over abortion, as in this clip of NPR’s health policy correspondent Julie Rovner speaking on Talk of the Nation on Tuesday.


JULIE ROVNER: The Senate bill ultimately got the president to issue an executive order. The pro-choice Democrats weren't very happy about it, but basically -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Wednesday, NPR news policy officially changed that language back. NPR News Managing Editor David Sweeney is responsible for the change. So David, welcome to the show.

DAVID SWEENEY: Thank you, Brooke, nice to be on the show.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: If Julie were characterizing those Democrats today, instead of calling them pro-choice, what would she call them?

DAVID SWEENEY: Well, she could call them abortion rights advocates, she could call them anti-abortion rights advocates, or any derivatives thereof. We decided that with abortion back in the news, with health care, that we needed to take a look at our existing guidelines. So senior news management sat down and we had a conversation, and we agreed that pro-life and pro-choice were not the clearest, most consistent or neutral descriptors that we could use.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it’s weird how everything old is new again, because 20 years ago, when I was there, it was determined that if you were going to use phrases like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” even if you used both of them, they don't cancel each other out. They're still basically carrying water for those advocates. I know you weren't responsible five years ago for the adoption of those terms. Do you have any notion why they would accept them, except for the fact that they're short?

DAVID SWEENEY: I don't, to be honest with you. I mean, I think we try to stick to, you know, reporting facts without using language that’s highly charged that one side or the other uses in their narratives.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the reporting on this, we read that the news managers who were responsible for the change, who signed it, can't remember doing it. They're no longer with NPR. Isn't that weird?

DAVID SWEENEY: [LAUGHS] Isn't that weird?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did any NPR listeners complain about “pro-life” and “pro-choice?”

DAVID SWEENEY: Yes, we got complaints. Actually, I spoke to one of the editors who's been covering the abortion story for many years, and he said when the change was made in 2005 he was expecting a much bigger reaction than we actually got. We certainly got a lot of mail around it, but our coverage of the Middle East gets about three to five times more responses than what we say on abortion. You know, for the record, is NPR perfect, do we get everything right? No. Are there times when we've used language in stories that perhaps could have been better? Of course. But, you know, that’s part of my job to work with the editors and reporters to make sure we get it as right, as correct and as factual, most of the time, as possible.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I would see this definitely as a correction, but why did it take so long to get this neutral language back into the NPR stylebook?

DAVID SWEENEY: In hindsight, would it have been better to have a meeting two weeks ago? Maybe. You know, I had been looking at what other news organizations use, I'd been talking to editors about it, but because a lot of the editors who deal with abortion were involved in our health care coverage, everybody was, you know, always busy. So it just happened that we got ‘round to scheduling the meeting for this week.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you tell me, was there much argument within NPR about switching this language back to what it was five years ago?

DAVID SWEENEY: We had a good discussion, but I think there was pretty much unanimity on Wednesday afternoon that this is the direction in which we wanted to go.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, David. Thank you very much.

DAVID SWEENEY: Thank you, Brooke, nice to be on the show.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Sweeney is the Managing Editor of NPR News.